Imagine a lost kingdom hidden deep within the ground. A place whose narrow crystal corridors open up to caverns that resemble the great halls of a castle, complete with stalactites hanging like crystal chandeliers, imposing columns that reach to the lofty ceilings, and stalagmites rising like sentinels guarding a land of secrets. This is a sumptuous rocky palace whose shimmering walls are draped in flowing crystal formations from the calcite minerals of which they are formed. It is a captivating citadel where fables, fiction and fantasy are brought to life in a timeless realm of stunning splendor.
It is not hard to imagine these things when visiting Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio, Texas.
First discovered in 1960, the caverns date back millions of years, when they were formed by the compacted layers of sediment carved out by underground water and movement along the Balcones Fault Zone. Excavations of the caverns have unearthed prehistoric artifacts and tools like spearheads and arrowheads from about 5000 BC that belonged to the native peoples who lived in these parts. Animal remains including the jawbone and femur of black bears over 8000 years old have also been discovered. And while bats are seldom seen now, the guano of bats who once occupied the caverns stain certain areas of the limestone, and their distinctive roosting patches still mark parts of the ceilings where they used to hang upside down to sleep.
Stalagmites and stalactites grow at a rate of about one inch per century. These amazing icicle-like formations captivate onlookers with their unspoiled beauty. The caverns are a tepid 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with a humidity level of 99 percent. A guided tour through this hidden domain is made more spectacularly eerie by the lonely dripping of water echoing in the darkness, by the secret grottos nestled within the flowstone, by the emerald pools that collect in the rocky hollows, and by the dim lighting that reflects the crystalline glimmer with spellbinding allure.
Visitors can expect to see highlights like Grendel’s Canyon that creeps down to a depth of 207 feet, and whose dark shadows might easily conceal the hideous monster from the epic poem Beowulf lurking in the partially obscured cave at the bottom.
There is King’s Throne, a thick limestone stalagmite draped with a myriad of smaller stalactites that hang from the seat of the throne with all the palatial grace of an underworld’s princely dominion. Then there is the Watchtower—the tallest column in the caverns, with a height of 50 feet; it almost looks like melted vanilla ice cream was poured over the formation before it froze once again while dripping down the sides, glinting with the appearance of crushed diamonds in the pallid light.
Another marvel is Sherwood Forest whose columns stand closely together like the tree trunks of a primeval wood, and whose canopy of stalactites hangs from the ceiling with a luminous grandeur of a royal forest that has been frozen in time, perhaps even cast under the ancient spell of a witch or fairy who might still rule this crystal kingdom when no one is around.
This is the kind of place where one cannot help staring with a hushed appreciation of the natural splendor that rivals human ingenuity. Everywhere there is something truly magnificent to see, from the craggy narrow passageways that connect the immense chambers, to the lofty domed ceilings of the caverns that beckon with an otherworldly beauty.
While visiting Natural Bridge Caverns, visitors can also test their physical prowess at the outdoor Canopy Challenge obstacle course, go zip-lining with gorgeous panoramic views of the Texas Hill Country, or just roam the lush grounds with their shady trees, singing birds and balmy breezes blowing above the hidden kingdom that waits below.
Previously published in www.TotsandTravel.com